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Any Other Topics: Specialist Plant Nurseries - A Series for the Enthusiast

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Started by: Tim Ingram

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Contribution from Tim Ingram 14 March 2013, 13:58top / bottom of page
Beeches Nursery

Specialist Nurseries must feature highly in the affections of Alpine Gardeners, and also it might be said, those very many AGS members who may not actually grow many alpines, for there are all those small woodland perennials (and simply just rare plants) that are of such great appeal. Beeches Nursery in the middle of the village of Ashdon, just a few miles from the beautiful old town of Saffron Waldon, is definitely one of these nurseries that satisfies where so many others fail. The nursery was started by Alan Bidwell in the 1980's and now run in partnership with Kevin Marsh, who is a fine grower and plantsman. There can be few nurseries around the country where so many rare plants are grown from seed, and so many new and interesting species are available. Like all the best nurseries Beeches is a place to explore, even on a freezing cold day in March with intermittant snow showers. on the corner of the house as you enter the nursery is a fine clump of one of the Helleborus niger crossed with x sternii forms, a far better garden plant than niger itself.

My first visit to Beeches was many years ago when the Kent HPS were sourcing plants for a Chelsea Exhibit. Kevin also grew a lot of umbellifers, a great personal interest, and a great enjoyment of visiting such specialist nurseries is meeting other growers who have that same deep interest in plants.

Beeches Nursery

At this time of year Hellebores are all the thing, even though the cold weather has not necessarily done them any favours in the garden. The latest 'new' hellebore is a marbled leaf form bred by Rodney Davey of R&D Plants in the West Country. This is actually quite striking and will no doubt prove very popular, but the fact that it has been increased in large numbers by micropropagation somehow reduces its appeal to the plantsman. The nursery itself is compact and beautifully laid out and maintained and the sign leading to the herbaceous plants takes you to some of the most interesting plants of all.

Here laid out alphabetically is the most wonderful variety of herbaceous perennials, woodlanders and ferns, including many special forms and species unique to Beeches. The two examples shown here are Ypsilandra tibetica (incidentally a plant that can be propagated well by leaf cuttings), and fine strong blue coloured Korean form of Heliopsis orientalis. Above the nursery itself is a wildflower meadow which on a slightly warmer and sunny day(!), would be a great place for a picnic.

One reason for visiting Beeches was that again we were looking for plants that might be used on the Kent AGS display we are planning at the Kent Garden Show. A number of potentially nice plants were picked up, including a dwarf Limonium, Eriogonum allenii (a very good foliage plant), Glaucium corniculatum and several Centaureas. More of this later in our run up to planning the display. Whilst the Shows and exhibition of plants illustrate the AGS and the plants we love growing so well, specialist nurseries like Beeches are also vitally important to us, and I for one would love to hear of others in parts of the country I have never been able to visit so far.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 21 April 2013, 09:59top / bottom of page
Cally Gardens

Receiving an order of plants through the post never loses its excitement. This begins when a nursery catalogue is scanned, and rather resembles picking out seed from the seed-lists, except that plants are more costly and honing down your order even more difficult. In these days of the Internet and Plantfinder there may be less of the personal link between grower and customer - plants can just become commodities ordered up without too much consideration about what goes on in producing them. For someone like me who attempts to combine gardening with the propagation and sale of specialist plants, I am always amazed by others who manage this so much better.

There can't be many nurseries around that appeal so much to the plantsman as Cally Gardens. Gatehouse of Fleet is just a little too far to visit often from east Kent, but fortunately I often order plants by post, and I am in good company because Christopher Lloyd was also a frequent customer (as I suspect must be many AGS members too). Michael Wickenden's list always contains something new and interesting, or something that was grown in the past and is rarely available now. These may be less applicable to the true alpine grower, because mostly they are perennials and rare shrubs, but are more often excellent garden plants.

Amongst the plants that came today are several that I have grown before but inevitably lost. Centaurea pulcherrima is one of the most beautiful cornflowers, which we first obtained maybe 25 years ago from Beth Chatto's nursery. She describes it in 'The Dry Garden' as 'a choice plant, not too large for the edge of the border where you can appreciate the complete effect of the silvery fine-cut leaves, and slender branching stems carrying large cyclamen-pink flowers'. This species comes from the Caucasus growing in screes and rocky slopes, and will find a place in the sand garden. Euphorbia nicaensis is one of the finest spurges for its very blue-grey leaves, compact habit and proportionately large lime-yellow floral bracts. Forms of it grow across the Mediterranean from Portugal and Morocco, up into Georgia and Armenia and even Poland, growing in dry scrubby places. However, it doesn't self-seed in the way E. characias and a number of other species do in the garden, and is always rare.

A third plant, Geranium lambertii, is very different - a species from cooler Himalayan climes with nodding white to pink flowers marked with a striking central crimson stain. Again this has never been common in gardens; it is difficult to propagate except from seed - and collecting seed from geraniums is a time consuming business. It is always recommended for a bank, where like hellebores the flowers can be viewed from below. Like other such plants perhaps its beauty is accentuated by its scarcity, but that is also a strong component of beauty in many eyes.

I have always been fascinated by the Borage family, which conatins some of the choicest of all alpines, a large number of excellent garden plants, and its fair share of rather rampageous weeds. Mertensia franciscana (Franciscan bluebells) was irresistable for its name alone, although now I know a little more about it it may classify within the last category. It grows to 1m (3ft) tall, forming strong clumps, in very varied habitats along rivers and even on dry rocky summits in the south-west US, and often in large stands. An interesting plant to experiment with in the garden. (Incidentally for anyone with the same fascination in this family, I can highly recommend 'Pulmonarias and the Borage Family' by Masha Bennett).

These are never plants you will find easily or at all, even at very good Garden Centres, and show the perennial value of the Specialist Nursery and nurseryman/woman, for whom growing plants is a true vocation.

Taken a year or two ago, these are a few pictures of Cally Gardens, in wet September - the littele pea-relative is a species of Dorycnium, pentaphyllum, completely new to me. Our long cold winter/spring disagreed with it, but I have collected seed. Just a typical example of the 'different' plants you will find.

Cally Gardens

Contribution from Tim Ingram 01 July 2013, 10:25top / bottom of page
Heuchera 'Burnt Sienna'

An update on the plants from Cally Gardens: Heuchera 'Burnt Sienna' refreshingly acquires its name from the colour of its flowers! (the most important part of the plant after all). And the flowers are very attractive close-up, pale-yellow internally and, well, burnt sienna on the outside. An attractive plant growing to around 2ft high. In many of the heucheras (in distinction to the tiarellas) the flowers are relatively insignificant, but there are quite a few smaller species where the flowers are very good.

Heuchera 'Burnt Sienna'

Contribution from Tim Ingram 01 July 2013, 21:47top / bottom of page
Hall Place Specialist Plant Fair
Hall Place Specialist Plant Fair

Contribution from Tim Ingram 01 July 2013, 22:06top / bottom of page

A hot June Sunday on the outskirts of London, and a small plant fair of that rare breed, the specialist nursery. Twenty years ago or more, the NCCPG (as it was) and HPS in Kent held thriving plant fairs that attracted gardeners in their droves. There was a good feeling selling plants to an enthusiastic and discriminating audience. In more recent years a proliferation of plant shows, plant sales, big events - and less discrimination from gardeners? - have left the small specialist nursery wondering where that audience has gone. So this event at Hall Place, just off the A2 and M25 on the eastern outskirts of London was doubly welcome. Many of the nurserypeople have known each other for many years - just like those who exhibit plants at the AGS Shows - and share that same deep interest and fascination in plants. The Fair may have been small but there were many interesting plants for sale, a lot of expertise on hand, and a good alternative to the sometimes stereotyped range of plants available at most Garden Centres or B & Q, or in the average garden! As one of this rare breed of specialist nurserymen let me show you how a lot goes on behind the selling of plants.

Contribution from Tim Ingram 01 July 2013, 22:17top / bottom of page

The last picture shows that the Kent HPS is proactive in its desire to discover new gardeners; but the sale itself was organised by Colin Moat in collaboration with Hall Place. Many of the nurseries though are strong supporters and members of the HPS and other specialist plant societies. To show this more clearly here are a few pictures from some of the different plants on sale...

Alphabet Orchids are based near Headcorn in Kent, and grow also a range of insectivorous plants. Some of their plants are more tender, like the South African Disa; but others hardy, like Dactylorhizas and Cypripediums.


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